Social media and social problems...

October 30, 2011, Sunday/ 21:00:00

Social media seem to have irreversible growth both in terms of the number of their members and their effects on society. According to the Socialbakers, a social media analysis company, the number of social media members for leading platforms such as Facebook and Twitter has already passed 1.1 billion.

Turkey, where one out of two people is below the age of 29, is among the top six countries in the category of the highest number of Facebook users with around 31 million people. However, it seems that despite the widespread use of social media in Turkey, their various aspects have not been sufficiently discussed. Do social media really have no negative effects on society and especially young people?

It is no doubt that the benefit of any material or non-material instrument depends on how you use it for what kind of purpose. To give a classic example, a knife might be a very helpful instrument in a kitchen in the hand of a cook and a very dangerous instrument in the hand of an aggressive delinquent. It is of course appreciated that the Internet is used for several useful activities, varying from conducting academic research to buying a train ticket without waiting in a queue. Similarly, social media can be used for arranging dates and places for face-to-face meetings by a real network of friends. Or, it might be a good instrument for communication between friends who have to live in different cities or countries as a result of globalization. These are all good, understandable and useful aspects of the Internet and social media. However, the other side of the coin is not so useful and innocent, which is covered by concepts like Internet addiction, individualization, social alienation, etc.

For example, Internet addiction has already been defined with its symptoms under the category of “substanceless addiction.” As far as we know, there is no research about Internet addiction in Turkey; but according to research conducted in Germany, more than 700,000 people spend around 35 hours per week on the Internet, which is accepted as a symptom of “Internet addiction.” It was underlined in that research that these people have difficulty in making friends, and they see the Internet as a method for socialization. However, it should be discussed how valid or realistic it is to become socialized through the Internet and social media. Together with that addiction, people become more and more individualized and alienated as they tend to have lots of on-line friends but not “real and touchable” friends. I do not remember where I have seen it, but I think this cartoon explains alienated individuals very well: A young man celebrates his birthday alone before the monitor of his computer, where the following note appears on the Facebook page: “Congratulations! This is your 1000th friend.”

It is the topic of another article to interpret the social problems that are aggravated or directly caused by increasing individualization. But just to touch on one of them, social exclusion is defined as the rupture of ties between mainstream society and individuals due to several reasons, such as a lack of sufficient income, ethnicity, legal or political constraints, etc. But, family and close friends are presented as “safety nets” that protect individuals from falling into the trap of social exclusion or for rescuing them from it. I am very doubtful if friends who were made in the “online socialization” or “online befriending” process would act as “safety nets” in the face of social problems an individual may face.

Last, but not least, social media and thus excessive use of the Internet seem to weaken the ability of individuals to express their opinions in a clear and understandable way. Most young people do not feel the need to enrich their poor vocabularies, which are sufficient for discussing some ordinary topics with their on-line friends. One can develop his ability to think about a topic and to express what he thinks only through real discussions, panels and debates. People, who spend many hours using social media, do not usually use their minds to produce a view on a topic on the basis of knowledge, but prefer to convey information without commenting, criticizing, developing or refuting it. The result might be compared to a postman who carries the mail to others without knowing its contents. As a young lecturer of a course on international relations, I am very much saddened to see that most students do not have their own views vis-à-vis important topics concerning world politics, and those who have some views are unable to express themselves in a clear way using a rich vocabulary.

Individualization may not be harmful if one spends his “alone time” reading and thinking, but if it is coupled with “wandering on “the Internet,” its negative results may start to cause some social problems. I am not too naive to try to change the course of the river, but I believe that it is high time to discuss the negative effects of social media on society and especially on young people.

*İhsan İkizer works with the Center for Sociological Research, KU Leuven University